The culmination of 22 movies. A cinematic universe built over the course of eleven years. One of the biggest franchises of all time. Some of the greatest actors ever. Avengers: Endgame is upon us.
I’m supposing you’ve seen the movie, so I’m not going to go over the story. I care as much about the technicalities and logic of the time-traveling plot elements as the film does, which is to say, not that much! I’m here for seeing what happens to my favorite characters. And boy did I get… some happenings.
There’s a lot of fanservice here. While I think most of it is deserving, there is also some fanservice that feels a little too self-congratulatory (no, Marvel, you are not the patron of feminism). It’s a delicate balance, one I think Endgame barely passes through.
Alas, even with all the fanservice, I didn’t get much of what I wanted, which makes this film a little more difficult to review. I think it ultimately boils down to the fact that I love Joss Whedon’s vision of the Avengers. I think his films contain the best characterizations for most of the characters, have the most interesting themes, and are the most dedicated to creating small, intimate, human moments.
However, for the past several years the Russo brothers have been in charge, and we’ve seen their vision come into view. There are some great things that they do; their action sequences are often excellent and they do an admirable job balancing the large casts they are given. But, as Richard Brody of The New Yorker put it, “The Russos have peculiarly little sense of visual pleasure, little sense of beauty, little sense of metaphor, little aptitude for texture or composition; their spectacular conceit is purely one of scale, which is why their finest moments are quiet and dramatic ones.” These weaknesses are particularly potent in Endgame. It struck me while watching just how ugly the film is visually. There are very few things happening under the surface for the characters. Everything they feel and think is shallow and plot-related, which strips the film of all the subtext and metaphorical layers the medium of film is so richly capable of. When it comes to the Russos’ vision, I can’t quite get on board.
Yet, as Cap says, we need to move on, and so I’m going to try to do so for the rest of this review. Because this is less of a movie and more of a ten-course meal where you keep getting things put on your plate that you aren’t sure you wanted but feel compelled to try, I’m going to list five of the things that worked, and five things that didn’t in Endgame.
RDJ brought it home. A beautiful ending for a hero who has been growing and developing in complexity over the last ten years. Ever since Tony’s vision in Avengers: Age of Ultron, where he saw the threat of Thanos, he’s been trying to convince the other Avengers to believe him and to see the greater danger. It was beautiful to hear Pepper recognize that and tell Tony he could finally rest. He finally saved them, as he had always been trying to do.
- Avengers 2012
The first Avengers movie was a marvel. Despite that movie feeling small in comparison to these newer films, it still holds up and has a sweet place in my heart, so I loved the time traveling bits back to the Battle of New York. Everything in that scene could be interpreted as gratuitous, but I think it was a delightful and well-deserved recognition of just how much of a pop-culture milestone it was. And props to all of the actors who showed up to have miniscule cameos in these films. Thank you for recognizing the importance of this franchise and their impact, whether you ended on a bad note (Natalie Portman) or clearly have no clue what is going on (Robert Redford).
- Return of the King
This movie is not on the level of Return of the King, but when all the Avengers came into the final showdown with Thanos, I felt like I did when I first watched the Battle at the Black Gate of Mordor. And when Cap said, “Avengers, assemble,” I felt the same shiver go through the theater as when Aragorn said, “It is not this day.” The final battle, for all of its chaos, replicates reading a comic book perfectly.
- Sam Wilson as New Cap
Anthony Mackie has been grossly underused since his turn as Sam Wilson/Falcon in Winter Soldier, but I’m so glad he’s finally getting the attention he deserves. Sam has the bravery, leadership, and heart of Cap, but without the self-righteous hotheadedness and with a more nuanced sense of duty. And while I doubt the MCU will do too much with it, having a black man take up the mantle of Captain America does mean something (quite a lot, actually).
- Old Cap
I think Cap also got a nice ending. Poetic, sweet, a good sendoff.
What I Wish I Could Snap Away
- Natasha’s Ending
In Age of Ultron, there’s a scene near the end where Natasha is standing with Steve on the edge of the destroyed Sokovia. She says that if they were to die there, it wouldn’t be so bad, as “there are worse places to go.” This ties into Natasha’s overall development in the MCU. She has red in her ledger, a past full of sins and debts. Characters try to convince her to forgive herself. She herself encourages self-forgiveness in others. But she can never give it to herself. After being the only one to try and keep the Avengers together for so long, she sees the opportunity to die for the Soul Stone and takes it. Her death wish, her final sacrifice, her payment, is finally complete. It’s an active choice she makes after a life of being a pawn.
So unlike some of the hot takes out there saying this death was unjust, I actually think it was the logical conclusion to her arc. I wish she had gotten a more redemptive arc, but it makes sense from a storytelling perspective. My problem with all of this, though, is that 1) she died in the place of Hawkeye, the objectively worst Avenger, and 2) the death is barely acknowledged in the movie. She gets no funeral and only one scene of visible grief from the other Avengers. Excluding the Edward Norton Hulk movie, Black Widow was the second Avenger introduced into the MCU, yet she never gets that credit. It’s always Iron Man or Captain America. For all the crap Scarlett Johannson has had to put up with to pave the way for other female characters, her character deserved more of a recognized legacy.
- Use of a Biological Family as Shorthand for “Making It”
In the MCU, having a biological family is a sign of a character succeeding, being relatable, and having a greater purpose. It’s presented as an ideal life. This motif has been used to great effect when it is corrupted and shown as an idol that holds certain characters back from accepting themselves and their potential. But more often than not, it is used as a narrative shorthand that devalues the relationships between characters we actually know and care about.
This becomes clearly apparent in the choice to give Tony a child. Now sure, Morgan Stark is adorable. But we already know Pepper and Tony love each other- we don’t need offspring to confirm it. Second, Tony’s fatherhood arc has been happening through Peter Parker, and I would argue that arc is more compelling because he chooses Peter despite his fear that he may corrupt Peter and be like his own father. He looks at Peter as a younger version of himself and wants him to do better. This is active character growth. Having a young biological child takes away this arc because a non-superhero toddler doesn’t reflect Tony Stark like a superpowered young adult does. Having a biological child for Tony also shortchanges Peter’s return and his grief over Tony. This compelling relationship is cut short.
True, having a child does create high stakes. But in the case of Tony, the stakes are already incredibly high, and we know Tony acts out of a desire to protect everyone, not just his own family. So, really, introducing Morgan was intended to give the sense that Tony had finally “made it,” achieved peace, and had all he needed. This is a blow to the found-family dynamic the Avengers have always had. The whole situation also feels extra awkward when you consider that the other Avenger who died but didn’t have a funeral and is constantly taken for granted is…. a childless Natasha.
Besides Scott Lang’s family, the other main biological family is Hawkeye’s family. We know next to nothing about them, but when they are snapped away that is supposed to be an emotional moment, because they’re a family, and he’s teaching his daughter to shoot a bow and arrow, and his wife is making lunch. It’s the American dream! Maybe I’m just heartless, but this barely registers. The audience has to fill in the emotions. Why not use the relationships Hawkeye already has with other established characters to make his turn to depressed vigilante more compelling? Oh, wait, except for Black Widow he doesn’t have any other established relationships with any of the other characters. Which leads me to…
- Hawkeye Continues to Be a Drag on All Possible Levels
Hawkeye as a character continues to make less and less sense in this franchise. He has no ties with any of the other Avengers. He never quite proves why his skillset is needed; in fact, the film works hard to avoid showing him in the final battle because his abilities are useless. In the first Avengers, maybe the everyman character was endearing and there were only six other heroes so an archer could make sense. But now, when we have seemingly hundreds of heroes on screen in a battle, and several everyman characters and all much more unique? #ShouldHaveBeenClint
Thor has been through a lot in these past few films. While I didn’t think his PTSD and trauma would be given a lot of heft, I did think the MCU was past making it into an unbearable fat joke. Thor’s depression weight gain/alcoholism being treated the way it was is distasteful, unfunny, and lame. This article by Sylas K. Barrett is an excellent look at the way the movie frames these symptoms.
And yes, I know it was also poking fun at Chris Hemsworth’s sex appeal and Marvel using it. But while I don’t think reverse-objectification is progress, the Thor movies (for several reasons) have been the most female-friendly corner of the MCU until Black Panther. So making fun of that just didn’t sit right with me. Thor has been getting more comedic as of late, but you can be comedic and still have your dignity, which this movie takes from Thor. And speaking of stripping a character of dignity…
- Professor Hulk
One of the most devastating moments for the MCU was when Taika Waiti (who I have a lot of respect for in all other areas) looked at three-time Oscar-nominated dramatic actor Mark Ruffalo and said, “Hey mate, do you want to do some comedic improv?” And Mark, not wanting to get fired and probably distracted by his various bromances with the other actors, said: “Sure why not?” Thus the downturn of a great character and performance.
In theory, bringing in Professor Hulk could have been a nice way to bring Bruce’s character arc full circle. We start in The Avengers with Bruce thinking he controls Hulk (“I’m always angry”). It is quickly revealed that no, Hulk still has a mind of his own and is making choices without Bruce (like flying away at the end of Ultron). The two are in conflict throughout Thor: Ragnarok and Infinity War, and finally, here the two are in sync in a way that embraces Bruce’s true superpower, which is his brain and heart.
The problem is then like Natasha’s: poor execution. Hulk looks so much like Ruffalo that it creates an uncanny valley effect, the movie continues with making him the comic relief without any of the character’s core melancholy, and it gives him no conclusion. Another example of so many missed opportunities.
If you are invested in the MCU, then you probably can view these movies as a timeline of milestones. I remember my intro being when I saw Captain America: The Winter Soldier on a whim with my dad, never having seen any other Marvel movie. I was instantly intrigued. I got caught up on all of the other movies, and by May of 2015, I remember lying in bed and praying to God that whatever he ordains is good but please just don’t let me die before I see Avengers 2. Suffice it to say he accepted my proposal and I got to see the film with some new friends, which was a triumphant way to end a lonely and difficult school year.
I have reviewed all of the Marvel movies on this blog since 2016 with Civil War. With an average of two MCU films a year, a few months apart, these reviews can give me insights into my own growth as a writer. These are also where I have battled out my own inner struggle of figuring out how to be a critic and a fan. I may never find peace between these two, as I will never find complete peace with this movie or the MCU’s legacy as a whole. And that’s okay. I can reevaluate the past, but as Cap says, I have to move forward. And all in all, despite some disappointments, I think Endgame is the best conclusion we could have realistically gotten (without Joss Whedon’s and my creative input).